Economic Growth

Small Island Developing States can lead in digital transformation for climate resilience. Here's how

An aerial view of Maldives capital Male. Small Island Developing States, united around a shared need to combat climate change, are poised to become leaders in digital transformation for climate resilience

Small Island Developing States are poised to become leaders in digital transformation for climate resilience. Image: REUTERS/Reinhard Krause/File photo

Keyzom Ngodup Massally
Head of Digital Programmes, Chief Digital Office, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)
Laura Hildrebrandt
Global lead, Digital Transformation Journey, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)
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  • Small Island Developing States are a collection of 39 countries and 18 territories — they are far from homogenous, but share a common vulnerability to climate shocks.
  • Digital transformation is increasingly viewed as a potential avenue to build climate resilience.
  • Below are five opportunities and lessons other states can learn from the digital transformation for climate resilience across the Small Island Developing States.

Digital development cannot be ‘disembedded’ from contextual economics and politics — and a key example of this is among Small Island Developing States (SIDS) and their shared vulnerability to climate shocks. Their diversity combined with this wider context means these countries are poised to become lighthouses that guide other states engaging in digital transformation.

SIDS are a powerful collection of 39 countries and 18 territories — but they are far from homogenous: 23 are high-income countries, 12 are low-middle income, eight are Least Developed Countries (LDCs), four are natural-resource rich, others are isolated, surrounded by large oceans and some share borders with each other or non-SIDS.

For example, with the discovery of oil, Guyana has tripled its economy in the past few years and was reclassified as a high-income country in 2022. Juxtapose this with Solomon Islands with a similar population and an LDC in the Pacific, which ranked 156th in the latest Human Development Index.

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Harnessing digital transformation for climate resilience

In this diversity of SIDS, one common feature of this group is that they are disproportionately impacted by climate change and external shocks. And in response, we are seeing the emergence of a unified voice that digital transformation creates resilience to the growing threats of disasters and other shocks.

There is a real opportunity to lean into the power of SIDS as a collective to reflect on and shape the digital development agenda that also impacts a large majority of developing countries. Since positive impact leaves railroads evidencing what has worked, there is a real opportunity to draw lessons that can be actioned to accelerate development in countries with similarities. The SIDS are poised to be trailblazers in context-embedded digital development.

For example, there are 50 non-SIDS countries with similar population sizes; what did they do to grow and how can that be applicable to SIDS? Could SIDS who are LDCs have lessons to offer for development pathways to the other 45 non-SIDS? In this heterogeneity of the SIDS is a unique opportunity to understand the enabling factors for sustainable change, and agency to design what works at scale to shape the digital development agenda with SIDS and globally.

5 lessons in digital transformation from the SIDS

Already, those opportunities and lessons in digital development are crystalizing for others to follow. Here are five of the most important:

1. Avoid vendor lock–in: Digital public goods (DPGs) offer an opportunity for SIDS to avoid vendor lock-ins and shape an emerging class of reusable technologies that serve their needs and those of other countries. For example, the use of MOSIP (a digital identity system) in Trinidad and Tobago and XRoad (that provides secure data exchange between organizations) in the Dominican Republic are based on a common framework for interoperability and agility. A recent paper by Carnegie India offers some thoughts on how to leverage DPGs as common goods for societal scale in countries.

2. Co-design solutions with ecosystem players: A digital public infrastructure approach offers tremendous opportunities to deliver better public services and create more resilient institutions. But it needs to be co-designed for smaller populations with controls that safeguard the sovereignty, security and privacy of national data. Digital Public Infrastructure Safeguards sets a global and national aspiration to shift the trajectory of DPI towards safer and more inclusive societies.

3. Invest in resilience building: Digital development financing for resilience building must consider the climate-related risk profiles of SIDS to provide improved access to affordable financing. Catalytic financing such as those launched in the Caribbeans by Co-Develop, the Centre of Digital Public Infrastructure, the Inter-American Development Bank and UNDP are good examples emerging of partners coming together.

At the recent gathering of the Digital Forum of Small States (DFOSS) Ministerial Roundtable, some SIDS leaders such as Singapore and Papua New Guinea, alongside non-SIDS like Rwanda, agreed that it is imperative their voices are heard — especially in emerging areas like AI — in wider global conversations; first, as contributors of knowledge that others can learn from, and second, to reflect their specific needs.

4. Deploy evidence-based governance: Successful digitalization in SIDS will require good policy research and processes that consider economic and political contexts. SIDS are often data poor and understudied and one solution will not fit all. Success will come from a depoliticized, evidence-based approach that recognizes the diversity of SIDS.

5. Collaborate: Digital cooperation and international law matters. Take for example cybersecurity, which is quickly becoming a top priority at a time when 60% of Least Developed Countries do not have national cybersecurity strategies. Collaboration is key among SIDS. In this respect, UNDP and the International Telecommunication Union are working together to offer a joint programme on cyber development and capacity-building to build safe and resilient digital ecosystems. Similarly, the Caribbean Digital Support Facility hosted by the Government of Trinidad & Tobago and the UNDP Caribbean facility agreed that digital transformation requires collective national stewardship and regional cooperation to enable the movement of people, goods and services across borders.

As the SIDS come together this week in Antigua and Barbuda, the discussions will set the trajectory for the future of the multi-stakeholder action to overcome digital, data and innovation divides. Participants from SIDS have been pivotal voices within these initiatives to ensure that SIDS have the ownership and capacity to govern and construct their digital public infrastructure and digital economies for and with their people. In becoming Small Island Digital States, SIDS can not only accelerate their development pathways — they can also be lighthouses that help others navigate our global community to a greener, more inclusive and more sustainable future for all.

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